Astronomer spotted asteroid hours before it hit Earth

The asteroid, seen as the dark streak in the center, about 13 minutes before it hits Earth.

The asteroid, seen as the dark streak in the center, about 13 minutes before it hits Earth.
Picture: Kleť Observatory

An asteroid measuring about 10 feet across burned up in the sky north of Iceland. This kind of thing happens from time to time, but this incident was notable in that the asteroid was spotted less than two hours before impact.

Krisztián Sárneczky gets credit for the discovery, as the Hungarian astronomer sighted the rock with a 24-inch (60 centimeter) telescope at the Piszkéstető Observatory, according to at the European Space Agency. Its first sighting was at 19:24 UTC (3:24 p.m. EST) on March 11, 2022. A total of four sightings were made of the bright, fast-moving object before Sárneczky reported its discovery to the Minor Planet Center, which he did so less than 15 minutes after the first sighting.

Informed of the existence of the object, the MPC named it Sar2593. The center’s assessment systems produced an impact probability of less than 1%, but Krisztián continued, making 10 more sightings of the object while maintaining close contact with the MPC. The new influx of data produced a different result; an hour after the initial Sárneczky sighting, ESA’s Meerkat monitoring system issued an alert to the agency’s Near-Earth Object Coordination Center (NEOCC), as the probability of impact had risen to 100%.

Additionally, calculations showed that the inevitable impact would occur in less than an hour, between 9:21 p.m. and 9:25 p.m. UTC (5:21 p.m. and 5:25 p.m. EST), and that the object would enter Earth’s atmosphere some hundred miles north of Iceland. The incoming asteroid was not considered a threat, as its brightness indicated a rock no more than 3 feet (1 meter) in diameter (this turned out to be an underestimate – more on that in a moment ). Objects this small usually do not survive entry into the atmosphere, and about 10 asteroids of this size reach our planet every year.

The Meerkat alert prompted other astronomers to take a look, leading to a slew of new sightings, including viewings from an observatory in Kysuce, Slovakia. The new data resulted in an even more accurate prediction of where it would enter Earth: about 87 miles (140 km) south of Jan Mayen, an Aarctic island located 1,190 miles (1,910 km) northeast of Iceland. And at 9:22 p.m. UTC (9:22 p.m. EST), it would hit Earth “less than two hours after being discovered,” according to the ESA. No video or image was taken of the corresponding fireball, but infrasound detectors definitely noticed an anomaly.

Predicted point and time of impact calculated by ESA's warning system,

Predicted point and time of impact calculated by ESA’s alert system, “Meerkat”.
Picture: ESA/AOP

“Signals of the impact were detected from Iceland and Greenland, suggesting an energy release equivalent to 2 to 3 [kilotons] of TNT”, according to at NEOCC. It’s more than we could have expected from a 3– object one foot long, and a sign that it was probably about 9.8 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) in diameter. “The discrepancy is likely the result of measurement uncertainties in optical observations and infrasound detections,” the NEOCC added.

The 2 to 3 kilotons released energy is not a reason to cough. It’s almost a-fifth of the energy released by the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima. Still, it doesn’t compare to the meteor that disintegrated over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013. This superbolide published somewhere around the equivalent of 460 kilotons of TNT.

MPC renamed the object 2022 EB5 because it had earned the distinction of being the fifth known asteroid to be observed in space before hitting our planet. Detection of objects larger than one mile wide is obviously much easier than spotting objects the size of this one, but this incident suggests that we are getting better at doing just that, as these five detections have been made in the last 14 years.

More tools to detect these kinds of objects are clearly necessary, whether it is a question of warning against explosions which could break glass or impacts of an existential scale. To this end, NASA recently deployed a improved version of its impact tracking system, while launching the Asteroid double redirect test (DART), in which a spacecraft will attempt to deflect a tiny asteroid called Dimorphos. ESA is also doing its part, as the agency prepares to build the Flyeye telescope in Italy. The upcoming telescope will allow astronomers to cover more sky at night and “reduce the risk of us missing an object of interest”, as Detlef Koschny, ESA’s acting head of planetary defense, explained in the statement. of the ESA.

Indeed, we are getting there, one pesky asteroid at a time.

About Johnnie Gross

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